From our reviewers: general fiction

Last updated 16:48 03/02/2014

Our reviewers take a look at what's on offer in bookstores now.

Vicious Circle
By Wilbur Smith (Macmillian, RRP $55)

Reviewed by Shaun Yeo

My brother, an avid reader, introduced me to Wilbur Smith when I was still in my teens and I've enjoyed his novels ever since.

Smith is easily my favorite author and I love his books more now than ever. He is the master of the epic adventure and once started his novels are hard to put down.

Now after finishing Vicious Circle I can safely say that I have read Wilbur's worst novel.

In this, the sequel to Smiths previous book Those in Peril, Hector Cross returns and immediately his quiet life is overturned by a violent attack. A terrorist group has re- emerged and Cross draws together a team of his most loyal friends from his former life in Cross Bow Security to hunt them down.

This novel is all over the place, a touch of Lee Child, a snippet of Clive Cussler everything bar Wilbur Smith himself. The dialogue is embarrassing, the plot implausible and the violence stomach churning. It felt like a first draft or as though someone else wrote huge chunks of it. Which is interesting because after publishing Vicious Circle with Pan Macmillan, Smith's future novels will be ghost-written.

It was reported that Pan Macmillan refused to go along with this and so after half a century together and 34 novels Smith severed ties with them, joining HarperCollins for a six-book deal worth [PndStlg]15 million (NZ$28.8m) .

Throughout Vicious Circle it felt that Smith, who is now 80, hurried through, maybe in anticipation of his semi-retirement or perhaps the ghost writing has already started. I just know that it doesn't stack up to his other stellar work.

The other crazy thing is that with all its faults I could not stop reading it. Yes it is cringe- worthy but it is also strangely compelling and a page-turner.

Smith has been constantly good for so long I'm willing to forgive him a mediocre book and perhaps if this was written by anyone else it may not have grated me so much.

If you haven't read a Wilbur Smith before then you're cheating yourself, pick one up and dive in, you won't regret it - just don't make it this one. But if you've read them all, pick this up, just lower your expectations and you should be fine, you may even enjoy it. After all, a bad Wilbur Smith is still better than most of the other stuff out there.

Coal Creek
By Alex Miller (Allen & Unwin)

Reviewed by F Mulligan

Write about what you know about is a long held maxim - and so Australian author Alex Miller has.

As a younger man he spent time in the Queensland highlands working as a stockman. He conjures up a time and place and brings it to life: hard, hot and dry, low scrub and a story of heartache to match. The time is the late 1940s, the setting is Mount Hay and surrounding highlands. Bobby Blue (Blewitt) is 19 and a born and raised stockman. He is used to and almost part of the harsh country. He is also in tune with the people and their ways.

The story begins with the arrival of the new police constable and his family up from the coast and looking to experience something different. Bobby Blue, also looking for a change, signs on as the constable's offsider. From the outset we know that there's trouble ahead and, in his very particular style, Bobby Blue tells us about it.

The author has written several novels which have been very well received and this latest offering will undoubtedly be equally so. It is well written with an idiosyncratic voice that draws you in and keeps you reading despite the impending feeling of disaster.

Midnight in St Petersburg
By Vanora Bennet (Random House, RRP $38)

Reviewed by F Mulligan

It's Russia, 1911, and young Jewish woman Inna Feldman has taken her destiny into her hands and travelled to St Petersburg. Her own family are long dead and the relatives she'd lived with are now emigrating so as to escape a threatened pogrom. Feeling slightly abandoned and in fear for her own safety, she is galvanised into fleeing to a distant cousin.

To her relief and perhaps more thankfully due to her charm, skills and no less her beauty, she finds a home, security and a whole new window on life. She also finds love. This would all be fine but she has two admirers to choose from. This love triangle is played out against a background of a turbulent time in Russian history. Oppression of the ordinary population has resulted in political unrest, revolutionary groups, and political assassinatons. It's a time of incredible wealth, luxury and waste in a country that bleeds first in war and then in revolution.

It's an engaging narrative with plenty of history and drama. A nice, easy read even if sympathy for Inna starts to wear thin at times. Of interest is the author's own family connection to one of the characters around whom she has spun her fictional tale.

Snake Bite
By Christie Thompson (Allen & Unwin, RRP $30)

Reviewed by Maree Field

Jez is 17, bored in a downtrodden Canberra suburb, and coming to realise she's in love with her best friend, Lukey.

It's summertime and Jez has little to do but hang out, get high and argue with her mum.

She takes it for granted that she and Lukey will be hanging out together, but then new girl Laura arrives from Melbourne and Jez's life tilts on its axis.

Snake Bite is a great read. It grabs you from page one and the pace of it doesn't let up until the very end. It's a coming of age story but there's nothing gentle about it at all - Jez's revelations about her life and the way she perceives it come thick and fast.

It's a one-sitting read, in the best way.

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